Having received my copy of Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles yesterday, I decided I would review it. You can find an audio version of this review at my podcast, Space Station Liberty in Prerecorded Show #1; you’ll also find this review on ePinions once they get around to approving it.

Packaging:

Something that no pictures or descriptions of the Shadow Chronicles DVD have thus far have managed to convey is that the DVD itself comes in a very attractive slipcover. It is a foil-enhanced slipcover, so that every part of the picture save for Ariel, Scott, and Vince in the center panel, and the title logo itself, is bright and shiny. The effect is particularly pronounced on the earth in the top and bottom panel, the Ikazuchi at the bottom, and the irises of Janice Em’s eyes at the top. Very nice-looking, and I bet that it’ll make endcap displays of the thing really stand out in the stores.

The plastic keepcase within the slipcover duplicates its front and back; nothing really special about it. One minor point against it is that there is no actual liner insert save a Funimation promotional pamphlet. It would have been nice to have something like a miniature version of the hand-and-pendant promotional poster on one side, a chapter list on the other. Still, it’s not like that would be a major selling point in any event.

The silkscreened DVD art is the hand clutching the notched pendant from the promotional poster, with the spindle hole at the center of the pendant.

I give the packaging 4 shiny slipcovers…out of 5. It misses 5 only because, as pretty as the foil slipcover is, they didn’t do anything truly spectacular with it, and the lack of an insert is slightly annoying.

Disc Interface:

On insertion there is first an FBI warning, then a Funimation logo. Then there is the standard disclaimer screen that says the extra features are for entertainment only, the opinions expressed don’t necessarily represent those of Funimation, et cetera. The odd thing is, this screen is only present for one frame. I had to step through frame by frame just to be able to read it at all. You would think that if they wanted you to be able to read it they would show it to you for longer than that, but who can know the mind of Funimation?

After that is a 2 minute, 15 second trailer for Funimation’s remastered Dragonball Z release. The odd thing about this trailer is that though I could use the track skip button to skip past the Funimation logo, and I could even use it to skip past the FBI warning, no amount of mashing of that button would make my default DVD player software, PowerDVD for Windows, skip ahead to the disc menu. (VLC was much more sensible about it, though.) Happily, the “Menu” button did jump me out of it to the disc menu. Still, I consider this sort of thing extremely tacky on a consumer purchase disc. Not good, Funimation, not good at all.

The disc menu itself has a brief opening animation, then a 44-second loop of scenes from the movie with a snippet of Scott Glasgow music accompanying it that plays in the middle of the screen. The Shadow Chronicles logo is at the top, the menu options at the bottom. The interface of the menus is nicely minimalist, with no confusing tricks as to where the indicators go or where you click to set them; the animated backgrounds don’t get in the way.

I give the disc interface 3 unreadable disclaimers out of 5. It looks pretty and is easy to use, however that Dragonball Z commercial lowers the score big time.

Video:

Shadow Chronicles is presented in anamorphic widescreen, 1.78:1 aspect ratio, as are the menus and the Birth of a Sequel featurette.

A big advantage of going digital all the way, from production to distribution, is that the source material never hits an analog step. The numbers on their screens never once stopped being numbers on their journey to consumers’ screens. As a result, Robotech: the Shadow Chronicles has one of the most gorgeous, clearest digital transfers of any movie I have ever seen. In some places, there was snow that for a moment I thought was a problem with my TV set, but then I realized the movie was showing a video communication panel at the moment, and the snow was actually on their screen.

While their budget was not huge, there is nothing getting in the way of seeing almost every penny of it on your TV. I’d love to see how it looks on an HDTV.

Birth of a Sequel looked a little grainier, as it was shot at a lower resolution (using standard camcorders for part of it) and probably compressed a lot more to give more space to the main feature, but it was all right for what it was and nobody judges a movie by the video quality of its extras anyway.

And so the video quality gets 5 crystal clear images out of 5 from me. As Yellow Dancer put it, “It don’t get any better.”

Audio:

For viewing Shadow Chronicles, the disc offers a choice between a 448 kilobit per second Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound track, and a 256 kilobit per second Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Both of them in English. The one subtitle track—closed-captions for hearing impaired—is English as well; non-English-speaking Robotech fans will just have to wait for a localized release, or a fansub.

I watched the complete movie in 5.1 on my Logitech speaker system, and sampled parts of it in 2.0 on my headphones. The 2.0 track is great for those not blessed with a surround system; the sound is crisp and clear and there is good directionality from left to right in scenes that involve directional effects.

However, the 5.1 track is what really shines. There is good use of the surrounds, especially in battles where explosions can seem to come from ahead, behind, or all around you. It showcases the music of Scott Glasgow and the voice acting of the Robotech crew very well. The sound was always crystal clear.

The audio on Birth of a Sequel is a somewhat tinnier-sounding 2.0; it doesn’t really matter much since it’s an interview documentary rather than a feature film.

5 audio channels out of 5. And what the heck, I’ll throw in the extra point one, too.

Extras:

The big extra on this disc is a 45-minute featurette called Robotech: Birth of a Sequel. Considerably meatier than the fluff pieces that are usually what is meant by “featurette,” this goes into detail about what it took to produce Shadow Chronicles, including interviews with fans, production staff, voice actors, and so on. Scott Glasgow’s musical composition gets its own section. It does gloss over some matters, such as the change in voice actress for Ariel, but there’s only so much detail it could go into.

Incidentally, those who have seen the segments of this documentary that were shown at conventions or theatrical screenings will want to watch those parts of this show anyway; the on-line versions were missing a few key scenes from those segments.

The two-minute Shadow Chronicles teaser and a number of Funimation trailers round out the extras on the disc. Notably absent are any sort of commentary track, deleted scenes (which had been mentioned as a possibility by Tommy Yune in interviews), or even the Shadow Chronicles United Nations public service announcement that is even specifically mentioned in the documentary. I suppose it’s just as well; every extra piece of something on the disc would make the main feature that much more compressed.

I give the extras 3 documentary segments out of 5; what’s there is excellent, but what could have been there would have been excellent too.

Content:

I first saw this movie at a screening in St. Louis. I had to rent a car to drive up and back. The video was a bit too dark and the sound was off, but it was still a marvelous experience.

If you read reviews of it on the robotech.com forums, you’ll see a lot of belly-aching about how the CGI was too artificial, the character animation too stiff, and so on. But I’ll be honest: I didn’t notice all of that. Once the movie started, it was like I was right back in 1985, in front of my TV set seeing Robotech for the first time. For the next hour and a half I was mesmerized by the action and the drama, seeing old favorite characters and interesting new characters for the first time. It was a delightful experience, and well worth the hassle of getting up there to take it all in.

And now that the DVD has arrived, and I’ve had a chance to watch it again, make screengrabs, and go frame-by-frame through various bits, I have to say I like it even more.

But that’s not to say it was perfect. There were a few little annoyances.

The big one comes in the way the movie covers the events of the last two episodes of Robotech. The first part of the movie occurs simultaneously with those episodes, taking the point of view of the returning fleet rather than our heroes on the ground. The thing is, there are some changes made in the way it covers those episodes. To go into more detail would spoil it, but suffice it to say that the order of some events is changed around, and the meaning of some dialogue is altered and expanded. Also, only Ariel and the Regess are ever shown inside the Hive, despite Scott, Rand, Lancer, and the others having been in there with them at the same time in the original show.

Harmony Gold’s position is that the changes are more in the nature of “selective editing”—just picking camera angles and moments of dialogue that didn’t have anybody else in them—to tell a different side of the story and keep new viewers from getting confused—but the changes are a bit more extensive than that alone could explain. About the only way to explain this degree of difference is to look at the different episodes as being like the separate stories in the movie Rashomon, the same events seen from two different points of view that saw and heard different things. This may not sit well with some of the older fans, who are used to events happening the way the TV show said they happened.

But by far the greatest flaw of Shadow Chronicles, and the only one really worth discussing in detail, comes from its length. Shadow Chronicles has less than 90 minutes—about 4 TV episodes’ worth of time, when you consider commercials—to introduce all its characters to new viewers and set up the story for successive chapters in the Robotech saga. There are about a dozen important characters to introduce or reintroduce, and half of these are major characters who need more time than usual to tell their stories. In the end, a number of the new characters get short shrift in terms of characterization, and when some of them are killed off it lacks the impact of, say, Roy Fokker or Ben Dixon’s deaths in the original show.

I find myself wishing they had been able to take twice the length of time to tell this same story—say, as eight episodes of a TV series. That would have allowed us to see more of the new characters and get to know them in more detail, with less exposition necessary, and the deaths could have had more of an impact.

That being said, Shadow Chronicles was by and large quite good, and a worthy successor to the Robotech name. The story doesn’t seem to have any major plot holes, or plot elements that were too hard for me to buy. The explanation for what happened to the SDF-3 is believable—much more so than the mysterious spacefold to another universe from End of the Circle—and the interactions between characters make sense. I like the way that shadow technology has been expanded into a story element of greater significance than simply “the edge we need to win against the Invid.” And the new adversaries are ominous and spooky.

When you think about it, ominous and spooky enemies were one of the major elements missing from every attempt thus far to continue the story after the end of the Robotech saga. For the tale to be gripping, the heroes have to be challenged by an adversary who stands a serious chance of winning the war. Nobody’s really been able to do that so far. The most that the RPG could manage was to have the Invid change their minds and come back, and the enemies in the End of the Circle novel—Robotech‘s last attempt at a post-series sequel—were more like those from Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama books: aliens who are more weird than menacing. You get the feeling they don’t even care about humanity, as long as it has the sense to keep itself out of the way. However, the Shadow Chronicles‘s “Children of the Shadow” don’t have that problem. From what we see of them here, they look like a force to be reckoned with, they definitely have plans that involve erasing humanity, and the REF is going to have some tough times ahead of them.

Moving on to the technical details: the CGI for the mecha combined with the digital ink-and-paint for the character animation work all right together. Not perfectly, but a heck of a lot better than in earlier movies that tried it, like Golgo 13 and Lensman. Still, in a few places, the animation does show its budgetary limitations. Shadow Chronicles really is more of an OAV or a TV movie than a theatrical feature, the various theatrical screenings to the contrary.

Even so, the score by Scott Glasgow was top-notch, bringing a much more theatrical feel to the soundtrack at least. Unlike the old Robotech TV score, it doesn’t repeat itself frequently; even when the same themes are used, they appear in different forms. Themes start out subtle, and grow over the course of the show. I will be looking forward to the soundtrack release.

The voice acting is mostly top-notch. Some of the actors’ portrayals have changed over the years, as their voices change with age or else they lose track of how they originally voiced the characters. The only really jarring change is that Alexandra Kenworthy voices the Regess a bit too softly, in my opinion; she lacks the harsh, strident tone that she had in the TV show. This Regess sounds altogether too kindly, even when she’s talking about the Invids’ vilest foes. It’s somewhat annoying that Marlene/Ariel’s voice was recast, though there are a number of good reasons for it—chief among them being the need to differentiate Ariel from the deceased Marlene to avoid viewer confusion. Kari Wahlgren does a good job, and perhaps it’s for the best that she sounds so different now that she also looks different; it might be hard to get used to Melanie MacQueen’s voice coming out of that new-looking face. And Melanie MacQueen is not entirely forgotten; she at least gets a couple of cameos as the voice of the deceased Marlene Rush.

In the end, I give the movie itself 4 Neutron-S Missiles…out of 5.

So, to sum up:

Packaging: 4 out of 5
Interface: 3 out of 5
Video: 5 out of 5
Audio: 5 out of 5
Extras: 3 out of 5
Content: 4 out of 5

Overall: 4 out of 5
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